Native American tribes sue North Dakota over ‘sickening’ gerrymandering

Days before a new legislative map for North Dakota was set to be introduced in the state house, leaders of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and Spirit Lake Nation sent a letter to the governor and other state lawmakers urging them to rethink the proposal.

“All citizens deserve to have their voices heard and to be treated fairly and equally under the law,” they wrote, arguing that the proposed map was illegal, diluting the strength of their communities’ voice.

But instead, in early November, the Republican-controlled legislature approved the map, with only minor changes. And the Republican governor, Doug Burgum, quickly signed it.

“Our voice is going to be muffled once again,” the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa chairman, Jamie Azure, told the Guardian. “It’s getting a little sickening, tell you the truth.”

The tribes have sued the state, alleging that the map, which was meant to account for population changes identified in the 2020 census, doesn’t comply with section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

The lawsuit, filed earlier this month, claims the map packs some Native voters into one House subdistrict, while putting other “nearby Native American voters into two other districts dominated by white voters who bloc vote against Native Americans’ preferred candidates”. It adds that complying with the Voting Rights Act would mean placing the two tribes in a single district, where they would “comprise an effective, geographically compact majority”.

Azure said: “We never want to enter into lawsuits; we never want to do these things. But, you know, at a certain point, the goodwill just goes out the window. And, you know, we’re tired of being disrespected. And that’s how we feel with this lawsuit.”

North Dakota’s secretary of state, Al Jaeger, the top election official for the state, told the Guardian in an email that they do not comment on ongoing legal cases.

Indigenous people in the US have faced generations of voting restrictions. Although Indigenous people were granted citizenship in 1924, it took more than three decades before they were considered eligible to vote in every state.

Since then, they have continued to face a host of roadblocks in the form of scarce polling locations, lack of access to the internet and language barriers. The National Congress of American Indians reported that they have the lowest voter turnout in the country, with 34% of Indigenous people not registered to vote.

In North Dakota, the state only recently reached a settlement with two tribes over a law requiring voters to have a valid identification card with a home address (many homes on reservations don’t have a street address). The state ultimately agreed to allow Indigenous people to vote without a residential address.

In this new case, the legislative map divides District 9, which includes Turtle Mountain, whose members tend to favor candidates on the political left, into two subdistricts. Since they have a majority in one subdistrict, but not the other, the result is the tribe has one less House seat in which to elect their candidate of choice, explained Michael Carter, staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund, one of the groups representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

It also moved the Spirit Lake Reservation to District 15, grouping it with counties farther north. Spirit Lake tribal members are also known for favoring progressive candidates, while this area tends to be more conservative, Carter explained. The result, he said, would be a Native candidate of choice winning about 5% of the time.

“This is just another one of those loopholes that they’re throwing around at us. But we have remedies for it. The remedy that is proposed would work for us and the state,” said the Spirit Lake Tribal chairman, Douglas Yankton, Sr, referring to the proposal to put both tribes into a single district.

Jean Schroedel, political science professor at Claremont Graduate University and author of Voting in Indian Country: The View from the Trenches, described the redistricting as a “violation in what has previously been the interpretations of section 2 of the Voting Rights Act”.

But, she added, “the court seems to be moving very much away from that.” She cited the recent supreme court decision stating Alabama did not have to redraw its congressional map before the 2022 midterm elections despite a lower court ruling the map discriminated against Black people.

North Dakota is home to five federally recognized tribes, with American Indian and Alaska Native people making up about 6% of the state’s population. Some tribal members in the state do support the new map, as the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation in western North Dakota was placed in a subdistrict, as it requested.

But for Yankton, who said committee members never came to the Spirit Lake or Turtle Mountain reservations during the redistricting process despite requests, the map is the latest voting rights injustice for Native people:

“It’s violating our democratic right, as citizens of North Dakota, to participate and support people who choose to run for whatever offices. And it hinders us from even having a chance as Native Americans to run for offices.”

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